Being a minimalist offers great benefits. But one of the most heard objections to minimalism is: “I don’t have anything that I could throw away.” Many people believe that they need all the objects they own, or at least value them too much to get rid of them. And consequently they let those objects drag them down, and prevent them from achieving the freedom that would allow them to live the way they really want to.
Our brain and coherence
This is not surprising. The culprit is a psychological phenomenon called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when our beliefs or our beliefs and actions are not congruent with each other (source: Wikipedia). For example, if your friend asks you to keep a secret, and you agree, you will feel discomfort if you tell it to someone else. Or if you turn it around: if you spilled your friend’s secret, and then another person asks you if you if you can keep a secret, most likely you would either give an evasive answer or feel bad about lying.
Our brain likes coherence and shuns incongruence. This principle also applies when you buy something. Imagine that you bought an electric citrus press. (It’s a kitchen appliance that you can use to make fresh orange juice without having to squeeze the oranges by hand.) Like most people, you think of yourself as a smart consumer. Now it would be incoherent to believe that you’re a smart consumer and at the same time that you bought something useless. So your brain starts convincing you that your purchase was indeed justified, because you reeeeeally needed that electric citrus press. Maybe because of all the time it saves you in the morning; or because you really don’t like the taste of OJ from a carton; or because you feel that manually squeezing oranges puts too much callus on your hands.
The same principle applies when you get something for free, though to a lesser extent. Manufacturers know this and are happy to offer large discounts, free samples, or “not satisfied, money back” guarantees. They know that once you own the product, your brain starts convincing you that it’s a product worth owning. This doesn’t mean that it’s something worth buying, but that is just one step away. Even if you get something as a gift you may find yourself liking it more than it merits.
How to fight cognitive dissonance while remaining minimalist
This makes it incredibly hard to get rid of things you own. Your brain often just won’t let you. However, being aware of your weaknesses is half the way to overcoming them. It helps tremendously to be aware of how your brain tries to avoid cognitive dissonance. Additionally, here are a few useful tactics that you can apply to be a minimalist without your brain protesting:
- Admit to yourself that you, like any other human being, are capable of making mistakes. Realize that you, being a wise and deliberate person, are capable of changing your opinion in the face of new information. This allows you to reconsider a past purchase without it being inconsistent with your values. Sure, that electric citrus press seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that you’ve learned that pressing oranges by hand is actually good for your muscle tone, you come to the new conclusion that you’re better off without it.
- Don’t accept free samples or buy things just “because they are on sale” if you don’t think you need them. While it may seem that there is no downside to getting something for free (or cheap), what you’re actually doing is make your brain commit you to a superfluous item. That free razor they’re giving away at a promotional stand may commit you to a lifetime of buying brand razorblades. Minimalism is about resisting material temptations even when there is no obvious cost involved.
- Tell your friends and family that you are a minimalist, or post it on your Facebook wall. This will make it easier to resist buying something or to throw something away. In fact you’re making cognitive dissonance work in your favor. Your brain doesn’t want you to be inconsistent with a statement you made to everyone you know, so it’ll be much easier to ‘act minimalistically’.
- Try to think of things that you get or buy as having them on loan. This sounds weird, but ask yourself how many things you’d really like to keep forever. Maybe your house, your wedding ring, and some other memorabilia of your loved ones… and that’s about it. Any clothes, digital gadgets, pieces of furniture, tools, and other items typically have a limited life span anyway. Why not accept that from the start and think of the item as never being ‘yours’. It was cool to wear those lacquered shoes three times with your tuxedo, but now that your wardrobe is overflowing, you might as well ‘return’ them.
These tips may sound rather silly, as it feels like you’re trying to fool yourself. But you’re not. You’re fooling yourself when you adopt false beliefs to prevent cognitive dissonance. Saying the things mentioned above out loud helps your brain accept actions that it would otherwise find incongruent. It puts you back into the driver’s seat with regard to your possessions.